Terry Prone: This hospital charge wasn't falling on any deaf ears

Terry Prone: This hospital charge wasn't falling on any deaf ears
A €75 Mater Private charge was enough to send some pulses racing during a recent visit by our columnist. Picture: iStock

LEST you haven’t noticed, the key difference between young people and old people, responding to relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions, is that young people party and old people go get checked by their doctors. 

This is, of course, an unconscionable generalisation. Lots of young people don’t party. But if you check hospitals, the current truth is that if you encounter someone under 60, they’re on staff.

Due to go to the Mater Private at the beginning of the week for running repairs, I am coming on to Eccles St when a passing woman cheerily says 'great shoes'. This is because I am wearing my neon citrus patent leather pumps. Something of a strategic error, when you have spent the last four months barefoot or in socks and the first time you have to walk any distance, you pick four-inch heels. Fits in a pattern of bad life choices.

However, I am distracted from the foot agony by what has the look of a small riot outside the new entrance to the hospital. Or perhaps the end of a small riot. 

The potential rioters are all men and women in their seventies or eighties, and as they get herded into the building and out of the drizzle, few of them are holding back. The bloody nerve, they hiss. The very idea, they snort. Never in my life, they mutter. 

Healthcare assistants, nurses, and a woman who is clearly the manager who was summoned when the near-rioters demanded to 'see your superior', are competing with each other to apologise for whatever it is that has happened. 

I have to wait for at least 24 seconds while the enraged woman in front of me gets to her line in the sand – sorry, floor – and takes a stand there that Custer would be proud of. The unfortunate manager apologises profusely to me for keeping me outside. For less than half a minute? I’m obviously in the path of a river of contrition and it’s easier to let it flow over me than annoy everybody by saying I don’t actually deserve it.

The woman taking a stand like Custer establishes one thing. She has just been charged €75. I fish out a credit card (well, OK, my only credit card) and wait for someone to charge me the same €75. Nobody does. Instead, I get herded into a set of chairs that look like they’re not speaking to each other. All the better to socially distance you, my dears.


The Mater Private Cork. Picture: Domnick Walsh
The Mater Private Cork. Picture: Domnick Walsh

A man in a medical uniform is somewhat timorously going through a questionnaire with people recovering from the €75 charge, which seems to have arrived without advance warning symptoms.

Respectable folk of the sort of advanced years that get you a special time slot in supermarkets were being asked if they had recently been in meat plants. One old gent cupped his ear and went “Sorry?” when the meat plants surfaced. 

The interrogator said it much louder, which clarified the confusion about the question while leaving the patient as mystified as ever. No, he apologised. He hadn’t recently been to a meat plant. In fact, he had never been in a meat plant. A woman who, like me, was involuntarily eavesdropping on the meat plant discussion, shook her head violently at me with her eyes closed; how could we BEAR this?

Me, I was bearing it pretty well. In fact, I thought it was the best gas in weeks. The great thing about hospitals these days is that because they’re full of old people, everybody other than the old people assume they’re hard of hearing and bellow helpfully at them so the rest of us can earwig without effort.

I earwigged on several conversations, including one from behind the Perspex where a non-medical staff member said crisply into her phone: “I will not accept the F word from any patient, so I am now going to end this conversation.” 

After I had denied frequenting meat plants or hanging around with known Covid-19 sufferers, I stopped at the Perspex and asked her if people often use the F word to her. “Three, four times a day,” she said. “Oftener,” said the employee next to her.

At that moment, I was called to a more elevated waiting room with still more chairs with their backs turned to each other in a marked manner, and five patients in their seventies and upwards all seating in a seething kind of way. 

I couldn’t get over it. Here were these elderly folk with a shared and not inconsiderable advantage - that of being alive. Not to be rubbished, the simple fact of being alive at a time when a lot of elderly people have recently had that right taken from them. 

In addition, deductive reasoning suggested the people in the waiting room shared other traits. They were mobile (although two had sticks) and autonomous. They were rich enough to afford the insurance that would allow them into the Mater Private. 

Yet every one of them looked raging. Even when summoned to go into the presence of the consultant, they sighed and snorted as if it was a big ask. I briefly entertained ageist speculation,  that may be getting old makes you bad-tempered. Of course, it doesn’t…

When I was summoned, I asked the consultant if he wanted me to pay him the €75, and I swear to you, HE used the F-word. That effing charge, he told me, had nothing to do with him. It had been imposed on Friday just before five, by the owners in France. “What does it cover?” I asked. “NOTHING!” he roared. “Nothing?” “It’s their way of recouping Covid-19 losses.” I wanted to ask “what losses?” given that the hospital had, I assumed, been bought and paid for, so to speak, by the HSE during the pandemic, but he seemed too mad about the timing to deal with further questions. Also, nobody had asked me for the money up to that point, so I figured I might get away with it if I stopped warbling on about it.

Seen as how I work in communications, I also thought about how people would regard as a PR error slapping such a charge on elderly patients without warning. But here’s the thing. It’s a PR error only if you care about the opinions adopted by those of whom the money was demanded. 

The Mater Private’s rooms are occupied by consultants whose patients would have to shift doctor in order to stop attending that hospital. Two chances. So the hospital has a captive market. 

That captive market may get mad as hell and verbally beat up all levels of endlessly polite Mater Private employees, but does that cause the owners sleepless nights?

I walked out of there, partially fixed, expecting at any moment to be rugby-tackled for payment. It didn’t happen. But I have a myriad other bits needing fixing, so they’ll probably get me next time around.

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